A plea to the church: denounce the execution of Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein is on death-row, just as President Bush and a majority of Americans wanted. But for those who identify themselves with Jesus Christ, who bear the name “Christian,” whose primary loyalty is (or at least should be) to the church, Hussein’s death in the name of “justice” should only be a source of great discomfort and shame. In fact, I propose that as the church, it is our duty as followers of the Crucified One to denounce the execution of Saddam Hussein—just as we must denounce the execution of any person.

This is a wildly unpopular claim in the United States today. Even those who are generally opposed to the death penalty view such a punishment as “just” when carried out against someone like Hussein. But it is precisely this kind of unpopular claim that I believe the church needs to make in order to truly be the community that witnesses to the sovereign grace of God.

Karl Barth made it clear in Church Dogmatics III.4 why Christians cannot support the death penalty. His arguments are summarized well by John Howard Yoder in his excellent book, Karl Barth and the Problem of War:
There are logically three possible kinds of ground for judicial penalties. The first is the protection of society. But a protection which is so absolute as to require the absolute elimination of any menace is justifiable only if the state which is to be protected, or the nation which intends to protect itself, is also an absolute. The absolute value of the state or the human social order is, however, something which the Christian cannot affirm. The second general reason for penalties is the expiation of an offense against the moral order; yet the Christian knows that there can and need be no more expiation since the cross of Christ. The third general ground for judicial penalties is the argument that through punishment the criminal may be rendered a more useful citizen. In this case killing is conceivable only if we are sure ahead of time that no improvment is possible; this also is something which a Christian may not affirm. Thus Barth concludes that the death penalty normally is never acceptable; capital punishment may not legitimately be a state institution. (22-23)
Yoder does a fine job summarizing Barth’s arguments against the Christian support of capital punishment, but it is well worth our time to read Barth himself on this subject. It is also worth taking into consideration the fact that Barth laments the history of the church, in which Christians have almost always supported capital punishment and eschewed careful theological reflection on the subject. In what follows I will quote Barth on each of the three positions summarized by Yoder above in the same order. The three supports for capital punishment (CP) that Barth articulates are: (1) CP protects society; (2) CP is morally necessary for the criminal to atone for his crimes (sins); and (3) CP makes the criminal more beneficial to society by removing her from it.

1. Barth writes of the first ground of support for capital punishment:
It belongs to its nature as an orderly society that its measures can have only a provisional, relative and limited character, that they must always be in a position to be transcended and corrected. But in punishing by death, it does something unlimited, irrevocable and irreparable. Again, it belongs to its nature as an orderly society that its actions must be designed to secure and maintain the life of its people. But to punish by death is to destroy life. ... [I]n capital punishment the state leaves the human level and acts with usurped divinity. It destroys life instead of maintaining it. It deprives of right instead of upholding it. (CD III.4, 444-45)
The United States government, in the hands of a president who senses a divine calling, has left the human level and usurped divinity in a way unprecedented for nations claiming to be democratic. I live in a country which has given itself the divine prerogative to take as many lives as it deems necessary in order to destroy radical Muslim leaders and take revenge on the loss of American lives on 9/11. The U.S. has absolutized—i.e., deified—itself, and we see this most clearly now in the condemnation of Saddam. The humiliation and destruction of Saddam Hussein is, at the same time, the glorification and divinization of America. The U.S. has essentially become the instantiation of the supreme being of theism: omnipotent in war, omniscient in intelligence (e.g., the Patriot Act and wiretapping), and omnipresent in the deployment of troops, the proliferation of bases and interrogration centers around the world, and the global spread of media and technology. The one major attribute unaccounted for is omnibenevolence.

2. Against the second ground of support, Barth writes in opposition to the view that the death penalty is a kind of expiation for sin:
[O]n the Christian view the retributive justice of God has already found full and final expression, the expiation demanded by Him for all human transgression has already been made, the death sentence imposed on human criminals has already been executed. God gave His only Son for this very purpose. In His death He exercised judgment according to His wonderful righteousness, and He did so once and for all for the sins of all men. Is not the result of this just judgment mercy and forgiveness for all? Who, then, is not included? (442)
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the end of all sacrifices. In his death, the expiatory deaths of all others are included and therefore finished. No other sacrifice is necessary. In fact, no other sacrifice is even possible. The death of Jesus is unique in kind and excludes the possibility of imitation. Since Jesus was nailed to the cross, all other expiatory deaths are nullified. Consequently, every death penalty exacted upon criminals is a mockery of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice as the sacramentum mundi.

3. Finally, Barth writes the following regarding the third ground of support:
The death penalty obviously assumes the very different verdict that improvement, education and rehabilitation are out of the question for [the criminal], and therefore the proposition that the responsibility of others towards him is at an end. His punishment can no longer have any positive character for him. Among others who offend daily, this person has done something which is so evil as to make life with him intolerable. And since he fortunately has no power to remove us from the world, we remove him from the world. ... It declares society to be inwardly powerless in relation to him. All that it can do is to confront him with outward superiority, to decide to put him to death and therefore to live on without him. ... From this standpoint already the death penalty incontestably means that society arbitrarily renounces the obligation which it has towards the criminal too. (440-41)
Even if Christians in support of the death penalty reject the deification of the state and the expiatory nature of a criminal’s death, it remains incontestable that capital punishment is a surrender of responsibility. By putting a person to death, society in general and the church in particular renounces any obligation to that person. The church (for the most part) recognizes the necessity of caring for the marginalized and the oppressed. So why the rejection of the criminal whom God embraces, whose sins are covered by the blood of Jesus? There is no justification for such rejection.

Eberhard Jüngel makes quite clear in his ethical writings how essential it is for the church to demonstrate Christian responsibility toward the criminal. Jüngel expounds his ethics from a center in the doctrine of justification, which carefully differentiates between person and work, thus embracing the person while (if necessary) condemning the work. Such a distinction ensures that we are more than our acts, whether good or bad:
We are still waiting today for a reform [of the state penal system] that would make a fundamental split in the undisputed connection between person and deed by addressing prisoners as people who are separable from their deeds. ... What are we [the church] doing to say that they are more than the sum of their deeds, that even as prisoners they have value—a value that is hardly noticed and yet is inalienable, the value of human beings justified by God? ... Will we stretch out our hand [to them]? Or would we prefer the judgment and punishment of the law to have the last word and the unjust stay unjust? (Justification 270)
The question to the church, to the United States, and to the world is clear: Will we stretch out our hand to Saddam Hussein? Even if he refuses to receive our embrace, will we refuse to offer it? Can we see Saddam as a person apart from his deeds, however barbarous? Can we dare to see him in the shadow of the cross as the one for whom Christ died?

The church that witnesses to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ must be a church that has a profound and perhaps unpopular “reverence for life,” as Schweitzer declared. We must be a church that demands true justice—not justice as the world understands it, but justice as defined by the triune God, who came to the world in Jesus Christ while we were still sinners to reconcile us to God. We must embody the mystery of divine love, that gives of itself and overflows even to the least of all people. We must have our vision shaped by the gospel of justification, which refuses to see people in terms of their good or bad deeds and instead sees people in terms of God’s eternal and insurmountable ‘YES’ to each person in Jesus Christ.

Saddam Hussein is one such person. No matter the extent of his crimes against humanity, he is still loved by God, for such is the inscrutable depths of God’s being—a being who loves unconditionally, gives unceasingly, forgives eternally, and redeems completely. This is why we confess that God is love. The question for the church is: Will we demonstrate this kind of love?
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11)


Anonymous said…
Way to stick your neck out, David. Of course some folk will want to throw a noose over it; from me you get a garland.

What is it with Americans - American Christians! - pro-life Christians! - and the death penalty? At bottom, of course, it is the worship of the god Thanatos. Here's another heresy for your series - indeed, blasphemy.

The British - and for that matter most Europeans - are not so enthralled as Americans with capital punishment - or with war, for that matter. Even Tony Blair, who plays the monkey to George Bush's organ grinder, has registered his dissent from executing Saddam. Perhaps part of the explanation of this obsession is, in historical terms, the US's adolescence compared with Europe, which the neocons regard with sneering and ignorant contempt. If so, even as we hope that our fellow Christians will get smart, we must hope that our fellow citizens grow up.
What Kim said. I have organized, written, and worked against the death penalty since a teen--years before I became a pacifist. I have now linked to your post, David, and will do my best to spread your message.
Anonymous said…
Like Michael, I became anti-capital punishment long before I became a pacifist, indeed long before I became a Christian. As a matter of fact, the day that my stomach first churned with a visceral repugnance of this refined barbarity is etched in my memory. I was eleven at the time that Caryl Chessman was executed in May 1960. I remember vividly sitting in my primary school class, all of us, with the teacher, watching as the hands of the large clock ticked their way to the moment when the pellets would drop and the asphyxiation would commence of a man strapped to a chair in a prison on the other side of the US. The intellectual - and then theological - arguments developed later on. Sometimes the heart has reasons that the mind only translates and develops.

I have preached on the subject several times, including a dramatic sermon in the form of a dialogue between God and Eve, about Cain. In fact I've got a sermon I haven't yet preached written a few months ago. It's on file, awaiting its moment - perhaps Good Friday, as the text is the Marcan account of our Lord's hanging. It's called, simply, "Execution".
Anonymous said…
Amen brother!!!

This is an absolutely necessary witness right now - and not because Saddam deserves special treatment in comparison with the hundreds of other individuals on Death Row in this country, but because his is the case that almost no one is prepared to defend. I've heard even the most liberal of people cheering for his blood like they were in the crowd at the Colisseum. Disgusting.

Some people will challenge you on the deification of the US aspect. They will say that it is an Iraqi court that has pronounced the verdict and Iraqi's who will carry out the punishment. That America has nothing to do with it. This is a smoke screen of course, but you might want to expand upon the connections you see between America's influence and Saddam's sentence.

Also, we mustn't stop with capital punishment. The entire US justice system is severely broken and the church ought to be witnessing to Christ's atoning death that puts all civil justice in a very different ligtht. We have more people in prison in this country (both as an absolute number and per capita) than any other country in the world - even China. It's a travesty how we as a society have decided to treat our citizens.
Right on, David.
Unfortunately, I think the administration will answer that it's the Iraqis who are choosing their own form of justice in this execution, and that the US has no involvement and will not impose its own justice (even though it already has). Our government will use the freedom of the [occupied] Iraqis as a shield. Whoever's responsible, your message still stands strong.
Jamison said…
karl barth is man, not God. saddam hussein should die if his government has found him guilty of mass murder.
RRoots2000: Karl Barth is definitely a man and not god, but he is not the basis for the rejection of capital punishment: God is. In Jesus Christ, God became a crucified human being — and he was crucified not just for self-righteous people like you, but also for murderers like Saddam Hussein and Timothy McVeigh. We must all say, as St. Paul did, "I am the greatest of sinners."

(Parenthetically, I am not disputing whether or not secular states should execute if they find someone appropriately guilty. What I am saying is that the Christian church cannot support such executions. The only execution we can support is the one that brought us new life and freedom from sin, and even in this execution we can only feel great shame. The witness of the church must be against all nation-states that approve the execution of criminals.)
Miner: Thanks for your insights. Indeed, I should have said more about the connection between the U.S. and Iraq, although at the moment that seems somewhat self-evident. However, 30 years from now, I doubt the history books will take note of that when they record Saddam's death.

You are entirely right about the justice system in the U.S. today. It is one of the great shames of our country. In a way, it serves as a negative witness to the gospel, in that we proclaim the true justice of God and the coming of the Kingdom where peace and justice will kiss each other (Ps. 85:10).
You say that Barth is not God, yet your comment seems to indicate that the Iraqi government is. Care to elaborate?
D.W., your post has inspired me to start a genuine campaign for the church universal to plead for clemency--commuting Hussein's sentence from death to life imprisonment. I have already contacted Every Church a Peace Church and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America to ask for statements and petitions. I am going to ask the various national councils of churches, the World Council of Churches, the Middle East Council of Churches, etc. to speak out. I think we should try to get Muslim organizations to make their own statements, too, if we can, but I would rather not have interfaith statements--keeping to specifically Christian statements allows us to be much more theological.

The campaign could wake up the global church on capital punishment. We do this not for the sake of Saddam Hussein, but for our sakes.
Michael, this is great news! By all means, I will assist in whatever way I can. Thank you for taking such decisive and swift action. May others follow in your footsteps in the pursuit of true justice.
Anonymous said…
"We do this not for the sake of Saddam Hussein, but for our sakes."

How true! :(
Anonymous said…
"Freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

David and Michael.

I have spoken this very day to a leader of our national ecumenical instrument in Wales about making sure that the Saddam execution is on its agenda. And I have e-mailed the convener of the URC's Church and Society Committee about it also. Statements, I understand have already been made (e.g. by Rowan Williams), but it is important that we keep up the pressure in the UK, not let the death sentence fade into yesterday's news, even if the US is the main front. Thank you both for kicking my butt into some "lobbying".
bcongdon said…
"Michael, this is great news! By all means, I will assist in whatever way I can. Thank you for taking such decisive and swift action. May others follow in your footsteps in the pursuit of true justice."

The "great news" and "true justice" is to inflict Saddam with life imprisonment! Isn't that just a long-drawn-out capital punishment?

Life imprisonment is certainly no picnic--but it holds open the possibility of repentance which the death penalty cuts short. The hope may be a slim one, but who are we to cut it short?
bcongdon said…
Good point and well-stated, but maybe at odds with what The Miner and David said.

The Miner said, "We have more people in prison in this country (both as an absolute number and per capita) than any other country in the world - even China. It's a travesty..." and David went further in his response: "You are entirely right about the justice system in the U.S. today. It is one of the great shames of our country. In a way, it serves as a negative witness to the gospel..."

So it's not just capital punishment that's a travesty, it's putting all those lawbreakers in prison. It would be much better, apparently, to shorten or cancel prison sentences, and who decides which crimes get life and which don't? We have a democratic process for making those decisions, but apparently it's a travesty -- yes, a TRAVESTY! (And hasn't life always been safer in countries in which the elites get to ignore democracy and dictate justice? -- said with irony, especially thinking of China).


P.S. Just to confirm, we all agree the God we worship is the same God who inspired the books of Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekial? Joash "did what was right in the sight of the Lord" when he meted out capital punishment on murderers (2 Kings 14:1-6), and about 20 other similar examples. I support anyone who wants to be a pacifist, so long as he doesn't try to create a pacifist government; it's the duty of government to wield the sword (Romans 13:3-5).
Anonymous said…
But the writer of 2 Kings references Moses. That's so pre-Marcion.
Kim, D.W., you'll be happy to know that the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America has decided to make a statement calling for clemency for Saddam Hussein. I've been asked to draft it and will use much from their statement against the death penalty in general. (I was the main author of their pre-invasion open-letter to Bush against invading Iraq, so I'm not unfamiliar with such tasks.)

I haven't heard back yet from other church-groups contacted. But the ball is rolling.

Brad, I have no time right now to debate the exegesis of OT texts on the death penalty. That's something important to do, but I and many others have written on it often and I will have to leave it to others to engage you on that right now.

The travesty of our huge prison population doesn't have to be addressed by releasing murderers, rapists, etc. We have thousands in prison for nonviolent drug crimes--the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill forces crack cocaine charges to be treated differently than powder cocaine and this by itself more than doubled our prison population. Prison reform and judicial reform and crime prevention, etc. are lengthy topics that do not negate the barbarity of the death penalty.

Asking a nation to abolish the death penalty is not asking that government to be pacifist. Over 50% of nations in the world have now abolished the death penalty--very few of those have also disbanded their militaries.

Now, I have to go because my response to D.W.'s brave posting has just created more work for me in the form of drafting this BPFNA call for clemency.
Anonymous said…
I did an internet search for "christians and saddam execution" to see if anyone found this imminent disgrace as appalling as I do, and I found you. Thank God. I hope you are not the lone voice in the desert. Even if this is an Iraqi choice, Christians (Bush considers himself one), and particularly Christian leaders, should loudly speak out against this execution.
There must be many people who believe that it should not take place, not for political reasons, but simply because executions are wrong always. I just wish that those Christians who are in a position of authority would be more vocal.
I have never understood how Christians could condone premeditated murder in cold blood, which is what the death penalty is.
Now, I want to go read more of your blog.
dudleysharp said…
Christian Scholars: Support for the Death Penalty
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
The strength of the biblical, theological and traditional support for the death penalty is, partially, revealed, below.

(1) "Capital Punishment: New Testament Teaching", 1998, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., considered one of the most prominent Roman Catholic theologians of  the 20th century.   See bottom.

 "There are certain moral norms that have always and everywhere been held by the successors of the Apostles in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Although never formally defined, they are irreversibly binding on the followers of Christ until the end of the world." "Such moral truths are the grave sinfulness of contraception and direct abortion. Such, too, is the Catholic doctrine which defends the imposition of the death penalty."

"Most of the Church's teaching, especially in the moral order, is infallible doctrine because it belongs to what we call her ordinary universal magisterium."

"Equally important is the Pope's  (Pius XII) insistence that capital punishment is morally defensible in every age and culture of Christianity." " . . . the Church's teaching on 'the coercive power of legitimate human authority' is based on 'the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine.' It is wrong, therefore 'to say that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances.' On the contrary, they have 'a general and abiding validity.' (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1955, pp 81-2)."
about Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

(2) "The Death Penalty", by Romano Amerio,  a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.

A thorough theological repudiation of Pope John Paul II's death penalty prudential judgements and of their improper inclusion into the amending of the Catechism.

"Amerio has the great gift of going to the heart of a subject in a few lines and very neatly distinguishes genuine Catholicism from imitations and aberrations." "What makes Amerio's analysis unique is that he restricts himself to official and semi-official pronouncements by popes, cardinals, bishops, episcopal conferences and articles in L'Osservatore Romano, from the time of Pope John XXIII to 1985 when the book was originally written." (1)
titled "Amerio on capital punishment ",   Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum,   May 25, 2007

About Romano Amerio

(3)  "Christian Scholars & Saints: Support for the Death Penalty", at
(4)  "Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective",
          by Br. Augustine (Emmanuel Valenza)
(5) "Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice", Prof. J. Budziszewski, First Things, August / September 2004    http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles4/BudziszewskiPunishment.shtml

(6) Chapter V:The Sanctity of Life, "Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics" By John Murray

(7) "Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says", Dr. Lloyd R. Bailey, Abingdon Press, 1987.  The definitive  biblical review of the death penalty.

(8) "Why I Support Capital Punishment", by Andrew Tallman
          sections 7-11 biblical review, sections 1-6 secular review

 (9) "The Death Penalty", by Solange Strong Hertz at

(10)  "A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World" by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8).

(11) "God’s Justice and Ours" by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, First Things, 5/2002

(12) Forgotten Truths: "Is The Church Against Abortion and The Death Penalty"
          by Luiz Sergio Solimeo, Crusade Magazine, p14-16, May/June 2007

(13) "The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)",
        by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 2003

         KARL KEATING'S E-LETTER,   Catholic Answers, March 2, 2004

          KARL KEATING'S E-LETTER, Catholic Answers,, Nov. 22, 2005

Religious positions in favor of capital punishment are neither necessary not needed to justify that sanction. However, the biblical and theological record is very supportive of the death penalty.
Many of the current religious campaigns against the death penalty reflect a fairly standard anti death penalty message, routed in secular arguments. When they do address  religious issues, they often neglect solid theological foundations, choosing, instead, select biblical sound bites which do not impact the solid basis of death penalty support.

(1) Books: 'Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church', by Romano Amerio, Fr Peter Joseph (reviewer)
IOTA UNUM: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the 20th Century
by Romano Amerio (English translation by Fr John Parsons)
(Sarto House, USA, 786 pp)
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 9 No 8 (September 1996), p. 14

70% of Catholics supported the death penalty as of May, 2oo5, Gallup Poll, Moral Values and Beliefs. The May 2-5, 2005 poll also found that 74% of Americans  favor the death penalty for murderers, while 23% oppose.

copyright 1999-2009 Dudley Sharp
Permission for distribution of this document, in whole or in part,  is approved with proper attribution.

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail  sharpjfa@aol.com,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Sun said…

I am a new Master of Divinity student at Princeton Theological seminary. I discovered your blog last night as I was reflecting on the recent tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. This quote that you posted after the Virginia Tech tragedy struck me:

“No one can be viewed as the exclusive transgressor in regard to what is done. Rather, the more a person’s action seems to call for condemnation, the easier it is in most cases to show how the agent has in various ways been tempted and provoked and to show for how long the evil in that person has been nourished by the sin of others. Consequently, in all sinful actions a shared work and a shared guilt are involved.”

—Friedrich Schleiermacher, “On the Sacrifice of Christ That Makes Perfect,” in Reformed But Ever Reforming, trans. Iain G. Nicol (Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), 88.

I have recently started blogging. I ended up writing a blog entry on Aurora inspired by this quotation. I ended up musing on the proper Christian response to this tragedy.


One of the conclusions that I came to last night while writing the post was that the death penalty should be done away with in America. I am glad to see that you feel the same way.

I enjoy reading your blog, keep up the good work!